|The Phantom of Liberty
THREE FILMS BY LUIS BUNUEL (1972-1977, Bunuel)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jan 5, 2021
Review by Christopher S. Long
You know how annoying it is when you see a character in a movie suddenly jolt awake and you realize the scene you've been watching was really just a dream? Director Luis Bunuel certainly knew, which at least partly explains why this exasperating trick plays out multiple times in “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie” (1972). The radical who first shocked audiences by slicing an eyeball in “Un Chien Andalou” (1929) still hadn't tired of his assault on complacency nearly half a century later.
I don't mean that Bunuel was just trying to yank the chains of his viewers, no matter how bourgeois his film festival audiences were likely to be, but rather that the septuagenarian artist hadn't let success blind him to the fundamental absurdities and inequities of a society he'd spent his professional life mocking. Dream logic hardly seems more absurd than a social structure which grants respectability to its worst people for the flimsiest of reasons. Call yourself an ambassador and you can smuggle cocaine while still being hailed as a gentleman. Wear a priest's cassock and you can get literally get away with murder. Master the courtly manners that help you negotiate a fancy dinner with grace and everyone scrambles to serve you with a smile, no matter how much contempt you have for them.
In “Discreet Charm,” that fancy dinner never quite happens. Bunuel and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere (who collaborated with Bunuel on most of his later films, including all three in this Criterion box set) force the same set of rich snobs to show up for a dinner that is constantly deferred for various reasons. At first, they arrive at their hosts' home on the wrong night which prompts them to dash out for a quick bite at a nearby inn where they find that the owner has just died. In fact, his dead body is on display for mourners in an alcove just off the dining room. And then things start to get weird.
One party is spoiled because the host couple (Stephane Audran and Jean-Pierre Cassel) sneaks off for a bit of afternoon delight in the bushes, leaving their unattended guests bored and offended. One dinner transforms into an impromptu stage play with the diners unwitting actors. A duel brings a lavish buffet to a bloody end. The local bishop (Julien Bertheau) drops by because he wants to fulfill his lifelong dream of being a gardener. And, of course, the vengeful spirit of a murderous policeman returns from the grave to enact justice on our very hungry protagonists.
The film only gradually fleshes out the relationships among the upper-crust characters. Francois (Paul Frankeur) and Simone (Delphine Seyrig) are married, but Simone is also shacking up with the ambassador (Fernando Rey). There's little to the players save their venality or outright corruption, and Bunuel enjoys tormenting them by constantly delaying any substantive gratification beyond a few sips of booze.
Which parts are real, and which parts are dreams? All of them, of course. Bunuel doesn't distinguish in such literal terms, and it hardly matters. A society that would reward these vapid cretins with wealth and prestige is too ludicrous to be believed (or respected) anyway.
At a few points in “Discreet Charm,” a minor character suddenly claims center stage. For example, a sad-eyed lieutenant interrupts the ladies' lunch (where they can't even get tea or coffee) to tell his tale of a woeful childhood. Bunuel and Carriere would expand on this discursive storytelling approach in their next collaboration, the absolutely bonkers “The Phantom of Liberty” (1974).
“Phantom” fractures its narrative into multiple vignettes with no main plot or lead actor. Each segment is connected, however tenuously, to the previous one, but the film frequently abandons a story just as it builds to a climax, often following a minor character who then becomes the protagonist of the next story. And so on.
As unconventional as the narrative structure is, “Phantom” is still a quintessential Bunuel film, relying on the twin engines of sacrilege and fetishism to propel the action. Sacrilege: French troops with a bad case of the munchies ransack a church and chow down on holy wafers. Horny monks play poker with religious medals: “I'll open with a virgin.” Fetish: A young man spirits his much older aunt off to a hotel for a weekend tryst. A traveling businessman in the same hotel invites the poker-playing monks to watch his dominatrix secretary whip him into an orgiastic frenzy - as the guests flee in horror, the businessman cries: “At least let the monks stay!”
It's futile to relay the protean plot in greater detail. But a focus on one segment provides a reminder that surrealism is, etymologically, built “on reality.” In one section, the mother of a young girl is called to school because her daughter has gone missing. As the teacher explains what happened, the young girl in question tugs her mother's arm. Mom tells her to keep quiet because everyone is looking for her. Later, the girl is taken to the police station so they can file the missing person report. The officer deems it convenient that the absent girl is right there, the better to prepare a detailed description so they can start the search. This sequence deploys no disorienting stylistic techniques, no canted angles or shocking reveals. It just plods through a mundane series of shots of people directly interacting with a little girl who they also consider to be missing, rendering the whole spectacle profoundly uncanny and unsettling. Downright Bunuelian, you might say.
“That Obscure Object of Desire” (1977) was Bunuel's final film (he died in 1983), and is less formally audacious than the other two films in this set. Toying with an almost archaic classical story structure, the film centers on Mathieu (Fernando Rey), an older man of wealth from an unspecified job who boards a train and regales his cabin mates with his tragic love story. Mathieu fell for the teenage Conchita, briefly his maid, later a hat-check girl, and possibly a revolutionary. Conchita allegedly falls for him too but steadfastly refuses to have sex with him, leading to a series of tragicomic frustrations for Mathieu, one involving the sudden appearance of Conchita's impenetrable chastity belt. Mathieu cannot break the spell the seductress has over him, yet also cannot break her spirit and possess her. “I belong to no one but myself”, she insists.
Though the film provides a few surrealist touches (a doting mother turns out to be swaddling her precious baby pig) the story, based on a 1898 novel by Pierre Louys, unfolds in fairly linear fashion, though with Mathieu serving as the unreliable narrator. The idiosyncratic touch this time is that Conchita is portrayed by two actresses, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina. Supposedly, Bunuel made this decision partly as a lark after he found it difficult to work with actress Maria Schneider, who was originally cast. Bouquet and Molina sometimes switch off in the middle of a scene, and there's no clear reason why either appears at any particular moment. Each takes turns at playing Conchita as diabolical or as innocent. Reportedly, most viewers at the time didn't even realize there were different actresses, likely a disappointment to the filmmakers.
Domestic terrorism plays a role in all the films in this set, but becomes more prominent here with urban ambushes, shootings, and bombings punctuating the anti-romantic love story. In Bunuel's films, civilization is a thin veneer over a violent society, and that's as true of the rituals of love as of the cultured manners of the bourgeoisie. It can all blow up in your face at a moment's notice, no matter how fancy your suit or how dignified your title.
All three films are presented in their original 1.66:1 aspect ratios. These “new high-definition digital restorations” all showcase sharp image resolution and a rich color palette. They also feature a fine grainy look. I only have the old “Phantom” DVD as a comparison point, but the new Blu-ray image represents a substantial upgrade.
The films are all presented with linear PCM mono audio tracks. The mono audio is crisp with no evident distortions. The sound design isn't particularly robust, and the mono track serves it well. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.
Each of the three films in this set was released as a stand alone DVD by Criterion 15 or more years ago. The Blu-rays in this set maintain their old spine numbers (102 for “Discreet Charm”, 143 for “Obscure Object”, 290 for “Phantom.”) Some of the old releases had substantive extras, others few at all. Criterion has pretty much packed each of these discs for these 2021 Blu-ray upgrades.
Each disc has its own keep case, all three of which are tucked into the outer cardboard slip case titled “Three Films By Luis Bunuel.”
The “Discreet Charm” begins with an import from the old DVD release, the documentary “Speaking of Bunuel” (2000, 99 min.) Directed by Jose Luis Lopez-Linares and Javier Rioyo, this feature-length documentary aims to be a comprehensive biography of the filmmaker, detailing his childhood through his early days as an artist (covering his friendship with Salvador Dali and Federico Lorca) and his wanderings as a filmmaker in several countries over many decades. Covering so much territory, it doesn't dive deeply on too many subjects, but it's an informative piece, spiced up with interviews from collaborators such as Jean-Claude Carriere, actor Michel Piccoli, and many others.
Another import from the old release is “The Castaway of Providence Street” (1971, 24 min.), an eccentric feature filmed at the Mexico City home of Bunuel and his wife, Jeanne. It shows Bunuel mixing drinks, while we also hear interviews from friends and collaborators raving about Don Luis.
New for this Blu-ray is a 2011 episode of the French show “Once Upon A Time” (52 min.) which consists mostly of interviews (Carriere again, actresses Bulle Ogier and Stephane Audran, and others) discussing the production of “Discreet Charm.”
In addition to a Theatrical Trailer (3 min.), the final feature on this disc is a short “Making Of” piece (14 min) that mixes interviews with some on-set footage.
The old “Phantom of Liberty” disc only came with a short interview with Carriere. That interview (4 min.) is included here. The other features on the disc are new.
Film scholar Peter William Evans analyzes (20 min.) “Phantom,” touching on as many of the vignettes as possible while trying not to over-interpret.
A 1985 documentary (30 min.) turns the spotlight on producer Serge Silberman, who worked with Bunuel on most of his later films.
The disc also includes an interview with actor Jean-Claude Brialy (6 min.) and a separate interview with both Brialy and Michel Piccoli (5 min.)
The “Obscure Object” disc arrives with another Carriere interview (19 min.) in which he talks about his close working relationship with Bunuel, and how they'd live together for long stretches while bouncing ideas off each other daily.
“The Woman and the Puppet,” the Pierre Louys novel Bunuel worked from, had already been adapted to film several times before. Criterion has included three scenes from the 1929 silent version by Jacques de Baroncelli. Running 11 minutes total, these scenes suggest that Bunuel borrowed considerably from the film, one which he acknowledge as a favorite.
“Portrait of An Impatient Filmmaker” is a 2012 documentary short (16 min.) in which cinematographer Edmond Richard and assistant director Pierre Lary discuss Bunuel's work habits on set, with a focus on his reasons for replacing Maria Schneider with two different actresses in the role of Conchita. A separate extra titled “Lady Doubles” (2017, 37 min.) invites the two actresses, Bouquet and Molina, to discuss their participation in this unusual experiment.
“Remembering Bunuel” (1977, 31 min.) is an episode of the French TV show “Allons au cinema” in which a round table of collaborators (Carriere, Piccoli, Fernando Rey, etc.) talk about Bunuel.
Finally, Criterion has included an excerpt (15 min.) from a 1977 episode of “Le monde du cinema” in which Carriere, Rey, and Silberman discuss their work with Bunuel.
The thick insert booklet includes essays on all three films, with author Gary Indiana writing about “The Phantom of Liberty” and film critic Adrian Martin writing about the other two films. The booklet also includes some extensive excerpts of interviews with Bunuel that were originally published in “Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Bunuel” by critics Jose de la Colina and Tomas Perez Turrent.
It's not that unusual to see a filmmaker still at their creative peak into their seventies and beyond. Agnes Varda, Robert Bresson, Frederick Wiseman, Manoel de Oliveira, and Jean-Luc Godard spring to mind instantly. But it's remarkable that the veteran Luis Bunuel of the 1970s was every bit as radical and provocative as the young punk Luis Bunuel of “Un Chien Andalou.” I guess he kept paying attention to the world and stayed angry about it.